Trump and Iran may be on a collision course, and it could get scarier

So we’re facing a very real crisis, without good face-saving exit ramps for either Trump or Khamenei. This could get scarier.

Trump and Iran may be on a collision course, and it could get scarier

Another Middle East war is the last thing we need.

President Donald Trump and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, both say they don’t want a war. But, feeding off each other, they are each behaving recklessly in ways that increase the risk of conflict.

So we’re facing a very real crisis, without good face-saving exit ramps for either Trump or Khamenei. This could get scarier.

If the escalation continues, Iranian proxies could strike Americans in Iraq, Syria and other countries, and there is also a risk of Hezbollah firing rockets at Israel to trigger a new Israel-Lebanon war. Oil flows could be interrupted, and the global economy affected. This could get very messy.

American hard-liners have had a dangerous obsession with Iran for years, egged on by Saudi Arabia and Israel. In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq War, Newsweek quoted a British official as saying: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”

Trump and his aides are right that Iran is repressive, destabilizing and untrustworthy, and it shouldn’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. (Of course, the same is true of Saudi Arabia under Trump’s buddy, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.)

In 2015, President Barack Obama achieved a nuclear deal that verifiably kept Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for 15 years or more. It was an imperfect compromise, but it made Iran less worrying for years to come.

Then along came Trump, blowing up the nuclear deal and starting a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran’s economy.

Quite predictably, Iran responded in two ways.

First, Iran warned that it would violate terms of the nuclear deal. Alarmed and flailing about, Washington this week had the gall to call on Iran to adhere to the nuclear pact that Trump has savaged.

Second, Iran was probably behind attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. It’s not impossible that Iran is being framed, but even knowledgeable Democrats believe the Trump administration is correct about Iran’s responsibility.

Both the nuclear production and the attacks on tankers underscore the way Trump’s retreat from diplomacy has made the world more perilous. But they both are measured provocations: If you want to damage a tanker, you put the limpet mine below the water line rather than above it, and Iran’s violations of the Iran pact won’t put it close to a bomb soon.

Trump described the damage to the tankers as “very minor,” and he seems to recognize the danger of escalation. But he has sent an additional 2,500 U.S. troops to the region, and there have been calls for striking Iran. If the U.S. does, then of course Iran will respond.

Brett McGurk, a national security expert and former presidential envoy, warned that given the failure of the administration’s Iran policy so far, “Trump may soon be boxed in: Either back down or resort to military tools.”

It’s troubling that the administration is also conflating Shiite Iran with the Sunni Taliban. Members of Congress fear that this is meant to give Trump legal cover to attack Iran under the 2001 authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaida and its offshoots.

Reflecting the administration’s propensity to inhabit a fantasyland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has offered a ridiculous 12-point plan that essentially called for Iran to roll over and surrender.

I was in Paris over the weekend for the annual meeting of the Trilateral Commission, and it’s sad to see how distrustful our allies have become toward America. Instead of forcing Iran into submission, Washington’s incompetent bullying of Europe and Asia to join Iran sanctions has managed to antagonize our oldest friends, push Iran back toward a nuclear path and increase the risk of war.

There are few good options now, but an international force to protect tankers might help, along with secret diplomacy to see if the nuclear deal can be patched up in a way that both sides can accept. I doubt it, but it’s worth trying.

I’ve been to Iran, reported from Iran and been detained in Iran; I have no illusions about it. The American hard-liners are quite right that the regime is unpopular because of its corruption, incompetence and repression. But Iran also has a deep nationalist streak, and Trump already seems to be strengthening hard-liners in Tehran. In 2002, six months before the Iraq War, I reported from Baghdad that President George W. Bush and his aides were deluding themselves to think that Iraqis would welcome an invasion; Iraqis hated Saddam but hated even more the idea of Yankee imperialists attacking their nation. Iran is similar but more formidable.

Negotiations are frustrating, imperfect and uncertain, and they may seem less satisfying than dropping bombs. But America has suffered huge self-inflicted wounds because of its invasion of Iraq 16 years ago.

Haven’t we learned lessons? Maybe “real men” should forget about going to Tehran and try multilateral diplomacy.

Contact Kristof at, or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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